If Paul Pogba was just another 24-year-old footballer making his way in the game, his exclusion from Manchester United’s starting XI against Huddersfield Town last week would barely have registered on anyone’s radar.
In the demanding world of modern football, plenty of players are dropped or ‘rested’ in order to coax a response if their form has been flagging or they’ve turned in one particularly abject performance. It is the nature of the beast in the age of big squads, high standards and shortages of patience.
However, Pogba gets judged differently, and the fall-out this week from Jose Mourinho’s decision to pick Scott McTominay in the Frenchman's place at Old Trafford last Saturday has been driven by little more than the narrative that the manager had left out a footballer who cost his club £89.5 million.
Sure, it was a landmark move for Mourinho to overlook a man who is generally one of the first names on the team sheet, but the hysteria that has followed in some circles beggars belief. The questions asked of Pogba and the mixed assessments of his worth to United have even had Mourinho scratching his head.
For some, including United legend and current Wales boss Ryan Giggs, Pogba has been given too much defensive responsibility at times. Meanwhile, as Wayne Rooney said Monday on television: “For me, Paul Pogba is a classic box-to-box player. He can do a bit of everything really well.”
Mourinho voiced his frustrations as to the various pigeon-holes people have attempted to place Pogba in ahead of Sunday’s trip to Newcastle United.
“For me, box-to-box means that you have to defend well in this box, you must have the physical condition, the desire, the intensity, the stamina to go into the other box," he told reporters on Friday.
"And in the other box you have to be good at scoring, creating, heading and so on. And then when your team loses the ball you have to go to the other box, because I think this is the meaning of ‘box-to-box’.
“This week, I became a bit confused when some people said a ‘box-to-box’ has to play free of defensive duties. That’s not a box-to-box! That’s a box in a box, staying in that box and not moving from that box!”
While the Portuguese’s full answer on the subject included no less than 30 uses of the word ‘box’, it was actually a fairly erudite response to some of the shrill criticisms of his apparent misuse of the midfielder.
Pogba has indeed thrived more on the left of a midfield three during his career, as pointed out by Giggs, with his time at Juventus littered with key performances in a side that dominated in Italy and made great leaps in Europe.
But there were conditions which helped to ensure his time in Turin was such a success. United don’t have a metronomic ‘quarter-back’ like Andrea Pirlo to find him at almost every turn, and they are also lacking a player of Arturo Vidal’s immeasurable work-rate and drive.
In this United team, there are a multitude of attacking options and, presently, a lack of riches in midfield.
Nemanja Matic has gone right off the boil after a good start to the season, while Michael Carrick’s health issues and age have teamed up to withdraw him further and further away from the first-team picture. Meanwhile, Ander Herrera has regressed markedly this term and rare has been the occasion that he’s had a lasting effect on games in which he's played.
So, it stands to reason that Pogba’s remit might differ somewhat at United from what it was in his Juventus days. And the last time Mourinho checked, his job is to use Paul Pogba in a manner which aids Manchester United and not the other way around.
It may well be in the former Inter and Real Madrid manager’s long-term plan to give himself more options in midfield going forward, but right now he simply doesn’t have the luxury of changing the shape of his side for the sake of getting 10 to 20 per cent more out of Pogba.
And besides, Pogba’s performance at Tottenham was something of an aberration for him in a United shirt. Either side of the hamstring injury he suffered earlier this season, he was the club’s best-performing player, and it was perhaps no surprise that such form came at a time when Matic was excelling.
As Matic’s level has dropped, Pogba’s performances have been affected, but of course it is the latter whose transfer fee everybody remains fixated on so it is he who has been questioned. But Mourinho insists it is not his problem if outsiders cannot work out what they are asking for from Pogba.
“We are in a world of opinions and people can get a little confused,” he added on Friday. “But between me and Paul there are no confusions. He is a midfield player, and that’s it. And it is difficult to find a player with more potential than Paul has, because he has everything.”
Few 24-year-olds have turned in performances quite as compelling or as consistent as Pogba in the Premier League this season. It might be worth some people remembering that before judging him on his price-tag alone.